Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Singing in the Bel Canto I


Rossini is the first Italian opera composer, looking back, who seriously interests us. Rossini in his youth copied the music of Mozart and incorporated into his otherwise purely Italian style Mozart's ideas of orchestration. We want more from an orchestra than prior Italians usually provided. Rossini used his orchestra in ways that Mozart didn't--to give the music a lively, driving rhythm with the unique Rossini accelerando heard nowhere else.

But is there any reason to believe that styles of singing were radically changed by Rossini from those of his Italian contemporaries? I would propose not. He is still light in weight and more leggiero than Mozart. He adores the complete facility of Italian coloratura. Toward the end of his opera composing period he began increasingly to compose the coloratura, but we should presume this represented the prevailing Italian style. The Italians retained throughout the bel canto the feeling of extemporization in the coloratura even after it was no longer extemporized.

By the time of Rossini the importance of the castrato was far less than with Handel. I was able to find evidence of only one very early role written by Rossini for a castrato. There are many heroic contraltos, including Tancredi, Falliero, Arsace and Neocle, but all were created by women. The female coloratura contralto was prominent in Rossini, and the operas were written for many companies and several different contraltos, not just one. Maria Malibran is known to have sung in Tancredi, Otello, and Semiramide.  The concept of a countertenor singing in falsetto simply did not exist in Italy.  [Footnote:  The mezzo role in Otello is Desdemona.  Otello is a tenor.]

We may say with assurance that the twentieth century revival of serious Rossini was the result of the appearance of Marilyn Horne to take on these heroic roles. What was the sound of a coloratura contralto in the time of Rossini? I prefer to imagine that they sang with the same dark color and medium to light weight as Horne, Bartoli or Genaux, and not the much heavier weight associated with the Verdi mezzo-soprano of Zajick or Cossotto.

The problem with reviving Rossini lies in the fact that a singer must specialize in this repertoire to do it justice, especially mezzo-sopranos and tenors. The standard technique of a late romantic mezzo-soprano or tenor will simply not do. Technically Rossini is closer to Handel than to late Verdi.

But by the time we come to Bellini's Norma in 1831 all has changed. Rossini has written his last opera and feels no inclination to compose in the new style. What happened?


For one thing Beethoven happened. Beethoven's big three mature vocal works--the Ninth Symphony (1827), the Missa Solemnis (1823) and Fidelio (usual version 1814)--all employ a new style of singing, a style not even hinted at in Mozart and Haydn.

Beethoven wasn't content with the serene entertainments found in those around him and sought to shake people up. There is no apparent Italian connection in his music, least of all in his vocal music. He wrote music even for chorus where the part is more shouted than sung. He sought to frighten or elate you beyond your every day experiences and cared nothing for mere entertainment.

Beethoven invented the Heldentenor and Heldensopran, possibly without ever actually hearing them. In the 1820's Fidelio was sung around Europe starring Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient in the title role, introducing people to something completely new. The most significant change is that a heavy tenor might be the heroic lead in serious opera.

This is all done with a held down larynx. I don't have to explain that, do I? If you hold your larynx down with sufficient force, you lose a lot of flexibility.

I only write about this because Beethoven's place in the history of singing is entirely overlooked. It is not to be supposed that the Italians payed any attention to a mere German. Weber followed Beethoven's lead, as did Wagner. The rise of German serious opera comes from this.


The other thing that happened was Gilbert Duprez. Here is this nice paragraph about Duprez from an article in the Times by Anthony Tommasini Published: February 16, 2003.

"This celebrated French tenor began his career in 1825 as a 19-year-old agile lyric tenor, a 'tenore di grazia,' to use the traditional Italian terminology. In 1831, at the Italian premiere of Rossini's 'Guillaume Tell,' Duprez became the first tenor known to take his husky chest voice up to a high C. Rossini likened the sound to 'the squawk of a capon with its throat cut.' But the pragmatic Rossini soon got used to it as he watched the increasingly frenzied reactions to Duprez's singing. The 'tenore di forza' was born, and the public has never stopped loving the voice."

I would like to question the sentence that "the pragmatic Rossini soon got used to it." From that day Rossini never wrote another opera. What evidence is there that he simply got used to it? He stopped writing opera and disappeared into retirement. He was 39.

For more information about the progress of the tenor in Italian opera see here.

How people sang can probably be deduced from the music that was written for them. With the exception of tenors, there is no reason to suppose that styles of singing suddenly shifted from light coloratura to the heaviness of late Verdi. Donizetti continued to write for a lighter tenor, as in La fille du régiment (1840), an opera comique. Change in Italian singing was undoubtedly gradual.

Alex Ross

I just added Alex Ross to my blog list. I love the way it displays now. Just because he is now officially a genius doesn't mean I can't think he's an idiot. I am still mad at him for saying Rolando Villazon was supposed to step into Placido Domingo's repertoire. If he thinks that, he simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

But I'm broad minded. Alex Ross' blog has style. If I ever decide who I am, maybe I will acquire some, too.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recorded the Richard Strauss Four Last Songs twice, so why shouldn't Renée Fleming? If I am to do Renée Fleming properly, it must include the new recording with Christian Thielemann and the Muenchner Philharmoniker. On my iPod the album is called Strauss Sanger with a funny little "o" over the "a" in Sanger. I'm sure this is supposed to be dots.

One dreams with any music that someone will come who will immerse themself into a music until it permeates their soul, and with a singer also their body, to the point where it flows out in pure ecstasy. That moment has come. For those of us who worship at the shrine of Richard Strauss this is simply bliss. Her voice is fuller than the mature Elisabeth. Strauss is about the legato, refined to its ultimate degree, and Renée completely embodies this.

The musicians are on the same page. Gott sei dank.

The album is filled out with a long section of Ariadne's music from Ariadne auf Naxos. It works well on recording, though I can't quite imagine it in the opera house.

"Zueignung" gets a rapturous rendition with a few notes I don't remember hearing before.

The album ends with a wonderful excerpt from Die Aegyptische Helena, a work with which I am entirely unfamiliar. Goddesses of the past are no longer there for us to hear and worship--this goddess of the present will help us forget them.

There is a deluxe edition of this album with tracks not by Strauss. I didn't buy it.

Friday, September 26, 2008


The Bonesetter’s Daughter, music by Stewart Wallace, libretto by Amy Tan, produced at the San Francisco Opera, is simply an extraordinary piece.

Its extra-ordinariness comes from its libretto. Amy Tan writes about what it means to be Chinese-American, and her libretto is very much a Chinese-American chick flick. (We are working the idea that opera is like a chick flick, an idea first proposed here.) Her heroine Ruth, who has a Caucasian husband, attempts to follow the ancient tradition of feasting on the Chinese New Year. To show her appreciation she gives her mother LuLing a fur coat. LuLing has an outburst where she retells the OJ Simpson murder as though she were an eyewitness. This is followed by a stroke.

The story is of three women: Ruth, her mother LuLing and LuLing's mother Precious Auntie. The only male role of significance is the villain Chang the coffin maker, sung by Hao Jiang Tian. Over the course of the story Ruth travels back in time, transforms into LuLing and alters the course of her mother’s life--something like a Star Trek episode.

The extraordinariness comes from the music which is made by a standard opera orchestra plus xylophones, Chinese drums and a pair of Chinese oboes which introduce the scenes in China. They serve as signals that we have entered another realm. The composer is to be congratulated for creating a characteristic musical language for this piece that is interesting to hear and expressive of the fairy tale story.

There is wisdom here. The story is about three generations of women, two of which have never met, but librettist and composer find ways for them to appear together, speak similar words and sing trios together. It is the most glorious sound in an opera since the trio from Rosenkavalier. It is the perfect antidote to Simon Boccanegra. It is an opera about singing.

The extraordinariness comes from the production. There are almost constant projections from the rear, but the stage is relatively austere. Acrobats fly in the air. There is dry ice. There is a pink mink. And there is a ghost.

The bonesetter’s daughter is Precious Auntie who appears as a mortal in the flashbacks, a mortal who immolates herself to prevent her daughter from marrying her own father, and as a ghost throughout the rest of the opera.

The extraordinariness comes from the performers. Zheng Cao as Ruth and young LuLing, and Ning Liang as old LuLing are traditional western opera singers. They sing well and move as traditional opera singers would be expected to move.

Qian Yi as Precious Auntie is from Chinese opera. Her portrayal is what raises this work to the truly extraordinary. When Auntie is a ghost, she appears with long, flowing white hair that sticks out from her back rather like wings. She moves as if floating across the stage by making very fast small steps. She flies on wires. Would one mind being haunted by this gorgeous ethereal being? Her singing is also quite extraordinary. In the trios she must surely sing like the western singers. She is miked throughout and when she sings alone, it resembles nothing so much as Christine Schaefer singing Pierre Lunaire. She slides constantly, hardly seeming to light on any specific note.

The loudest cheers were for Qian Yi and Amy Tan. It was a wonderful evening in the theater. All are to be congratulated.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Arabella soprano Renee Fleming
Zdenka, her sister soprano Julia Kleiter 

Mandryka, a Croatian landowner baritone Morten Frank Larsen

After hearing Renée Fleming sing the ending to Capriccio, I thought it might be time to listen to my DVD of Arabella from the Zürich Opera. I don't have a lot of Arabellas to draw on for comparison.

The plot is a little thin. A young woman first coming of age during that fabulous German excuse for endless parties--Fasching--must commit tonight to someone she will marry in order to save her family from financial ruin. She will do her duty but still longs for the man of her dreams who will sweep her off her feet. He shows up, they get together, etc.

There is a somewhat amusing subplot. The mezzo in drag is actually in drag in the story. This has to be some kind of opera joke put in to confuse regular opera goers. She is in love with her friend Matteo who loves her sister Arabella. The subplot has a happy ending, too.

The production is a typical Zurich minimalist design. Simple modern clothing with not much in the way of set. I would think the locals would be tiring of this style by now.

Renée is divine as Arabella, but the musical preparation of the rest of the cast is disappointing. No one but Renée comes close to getting it. It's basically two operas--when Renée is singing and when she isn't. Someone seems to have created the impression that singing Strauss is nothing more than pronouncing the words and hitting the correct notes. It is so far from the correct style for Strauss it's embarrassing. They do excellent Handel in Zurich and a pretty nice Carmen, but this misses.

Morten Frank Larsen as the man of her dreams just made me wish for Jonas Kaufmann. He looked beautiful but sounded wooden and unpleasant. They should have done better by Renée.

Strauss is all in the phrasing. All. No phrasing, no music.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Comment on Comment

I have decided to blog a response to Paul's comment.  Find this here.

Since I never liked Hampson when he sounded good, I am sort of enjoying him now that his voice has a rasp. This raspy tone is much more suitable for Verdi. His Germont is the most I have ever liked him. Maybe I will like Dwayne Croft more when his voice starts to get a bit raspy. Croft was fabulous in what he was cast for--secondary lead in Manon, an opera which allows for a less significant tone. Dmitri should try Germont. Maybe he already has and I haven't heard about it. [I see he has a DVD with Ciofi.]

I love Strauss and Renée is a major practitioner. I have been thinking of traveling to see more Strauss. The problem with Capriccio is that we can't get attracted to the ambivalent character of the Countess. Renée portrays and sings her very well, but maybe we just don't give a damn. The opera is a long discussion about which is more important: words or music. As a devotee of opera and all vocal music, I would hardly wish to see one without the other. The Countess sums it up--the marriage of words and music produces a third art which transforms both. Her problem in choosing a suitor is that no one is there to represent this third transcendent art form.

I liked her German which I could understand. If there is anything to criticize, it is that she sometimes sacrificed phrase to diction. In Strauss phrase is everything. I don't understand Italian or French well enough to comment.

Renée Fleming is a true diva. The mark of the diva is her immediate recognizability. To see or hear her, you are never going to mistake her for someone else. The only problem with Renée is that there is often a bit of breath in her tone. Nothing she sang here was as good as her glorious Tatiana, but this may be due to the lack of dramatic continuity. She is a great artist, and I'm glad she was honored in this way.

Blah blah blah. Hi, Paul. Hope you are well.

Opera Chic

Opera Chic has the red carpet photos of the Met opening gala. Click here.

I like the whole idea of opera as Hollywood.

I see here that Sieglinde has some red carpet shots, too.

Mostly opera has the dresses here.

All Renée all the time

I cannot explain my taste for these ridiculous pictures taken of the screen during the HD simulcast of the Met gala.

This one seems only to capture her basic Renéeness.

It was about glamor. It was about outfits--fabulous outfits. It was about jewelry. Annie Leibovitz photographed it all for Vogue. It was about Renée Fleming, the prima donna of today's Metropolitan Opera.

My only previous experience of such a gala was at the Washington National Opera where Placido Domingo did two parties (Fedora and Fledermaus) with the end of Otello in between. Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona sang more than Placido.

Renée bit off a much bigger chunk. All of her scenes--the country and return to Flora's scenes from La Traviata, the street scene and San Sulpice from Manon, and the end of Capriccio--were significant and intense. It was a night of important singing.

Important support came from Thomas Hampson in La Traviata and Ramon Vargas in Traviata and Manon.

I have only heard Capriccio sung by Kiri te Kanawa, a singer who stuck carefully to her gorgeous legato and let it work for her. Renée reaches beyond, attempts significant acting interpretations of each role with interesting results. I laughed out loud (alone, I'm afraid) when she lay backwards over the prayer stool in her attempt to seduce des Grieux. Reminder of this bedroom posture seems to have done the trick. Her Manon just wants to have fun.

The Met went all out in its coverage, though there were technical difficulties at the start. We did not hear the narration for Renée's biography. We have Susan Graham to interview at the Met and Deborah Voigt interviewing in Times Square. Both were in form. Debbie's tactic seemed to be to interview people in Times Square who were fans of her own. This seemed to work well. Susie's interviewees were almost as flattering.

The Met of 2008 is an endless party, and Renée Fleming is the life of the party.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


It is still news that the San Francisco Opera has received a gift for $40m, the largest amount ever given to an American opera company. Read more here.

This is on top of $35m a couple of years ago. Read here. According to this article the endowment for the San Francisco Opera is now big time finance.

Great Verdi

David Gockley has done the impossible--he has overcome the San Francisco Opera's Verdi curse. Traditionally they do better Verdi at the Palo Alto Opera than the San Francisco Opera. I have actually never heard such ghastly singing as in Verdi in San Francisco. Gockley has only been in SF for a couple of seasons so perhaps he's booking people based on how they sing now instead of how they will sound in 5 years.

I am talking about the current production of Simon Boccanegra starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I haven't forgotten the slogan I once made up about this opera--never go to an opera with 3 baritones. If you don't like a lot of low growling in your opera, you should avoid this one like the plague.

The plot is a little hard to follow. I will try to simplify. There is this girl named Amelia (soprano) and two guys are in love with her: Gabrieli (tenor) and Paolo (baritone). She likes Gabrieli and her guardian likes Paolo. So far par for an Italian opera. Paolo is an ally of the Doge of Genoa, Simon Boccanegra (baritone), and was primarily responsible for the fact that Simon, a commoner, was made doge. He thinks he deserves Amelia and intends to collect on his debt.

This is where the plot gets complicated. Amelia is adopted. She and Simon are together one day, and she begins talking about her memories of her childhood. These memories coincide with Simon's memories of his now dead wife and the old woman he left the child with. Amelia says she remembers a sailor, and this was Simon.

So Simon is her father and Jacopo Fiesco (bass) is her grandfather on the mother's side. One of the things that makes the plot so complicated is that Amelia is adopted as a Grimaldi and no one else in the plot is identified as a Grimaldi. Jacopo is her guardian, and he's named Fiesco. So what's that about?

Everyone makes up with everyone else, except for Paolo who poisons Simon. Who dies and is succeeded as the doge by Gabrieli who marries Amelia.

One or two of the small parts are also baritones. There are extended duets between baritone and bass and even between two baritones. For me this is tedious. Whether or not the opera is a success depends on the Simon character, here sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Dmitri is a lovely lyric baritone who is required to sing sweetly and sentimentally with his daughter (sung beautifully by Barbara Frittoli making her San Francisco Opera debut), and still be sufficiently dramatic to support the heavy scenes with the other low voices. Dmitri is perfect for this kind of part. The beauty of his voice assuages the sense of growling.

Verdi was attracted to the subject matter, I'm sure, because of Simon's role as a uniter and peace maker in early Italy. He is seen trying to make peace with Venice while everyone else shouts for war. Verdi was an activist in the process of unifying Italy, and always has a purpose in his political operas.

Also excellent in their parts were the Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow and the American tenor Marcus Haddock. I hope we hear more from Marcus.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


At the Palace of the Legion of Honor is an exhibition of Women Impressionists: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, Marie Bracquemond. In looking at these paintings I saw something I have never seen before. I walked around the rooms looking at the pictures until I came to these:

Without knowing who she was I thought, "This is someone the artist loves." She is Julie Manet, the painter Berthe Morisot's daughter.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sexiest in Drag

I have to keep up these posts since I am still the only one doing it. These pictures are all of Vivica Genaux, the first one from Siege of Corinth in Baltimore, the same opera production I reviewed here.

This is Semiramide.

These two are from Rinaldo, where she probably sang Rinaldo.

She also looks quite nice in girl's clothes, as here in this fabulous picture with Rodney Gilfry in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pavarotti, A life in Seven Arias

The seven arias are:

1. “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La Boheme. I was present in the audience when this particular clip was being filmed. Pavarotti's first big splash at the Royal Opera was in this opera.

2. “Pour Mon Ame” from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. This section shows both Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez singing the aria with the 9 high C's. Both are awesome. This section of the film is about his relationship with Joan Sutherland. He credits her with teaching him how to support properly. The sound comes from God and from his fabulous resonance.

3. "Panis Angelicus" by Franck. This is a religious song and not an opera aria. In this section his youth with his father is explored. The aria is sung in canon with his father taking the lead. In this clip he sings with Sting. Watch it if you can.

4. "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto. This section includes film of Florez discussing Pavarotti's technique. Great stuff.

5. "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot. I like this version from 1980. Featured on the program was the version from the first three tenors concert, generally the subject of the segment. It began the Pavarotti as pop star portion of his life.

6. "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca. This aria was part of his last performance on any opera stage which took place at the Metropolitan. The film shows him walking with men on both sides to support him.

7. "Ingemisco" from the Verdi Requiem. It's as though he were singing for his own funeral. This clip, with Karajan, is the one shown in the film.

I fast forwarded through the Sting stuff. I have no interest in the Pavarotti as pop star phase, though I hesitate to criticize because lots of people first heard of opera there. I prefer the serious part of his career.

Florez says, "His technique was based on the vowels." I agree. If you can have a low larynx, open pharynx and bright, open vowels like Pavarotti, you might sound pretty good.

He started at the top--above the top. There are Caruso and Pavarotti.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Angela at Zellerbach

Cal Performances brought the Angela Gheorghiu show to Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley on Saturday night. With her were the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with Marco Armiliato conducting. Marco is from Genoa and specializes in Italian repertoire.

Four numbers--overtures to Nozze di Figaro and La Cenerentola, intermezzos from Manon Lescaut and Cavalliera Rusticana--were for the orchestra alone. I liked very much his version of the Cavalliera Rusticana but felt throughout the concert that the orchestra and the conductor were unfamiliar with one another and uncoordinated. The Rossini was actually pretty bad. He is obviously looking for greater subtlety in tempo than they are accustomed to.

They played far too loud for Angela. Normally they are down in the pit of the opera house where the volume is somewhat muffled. I couldn't help wondering if anyone bothered to sit in the house and listen to the balance. It's painful for me to write about this, and if you enjoyed the concert I apologize. She stood close to the conductor, on his left, our left, and faced him much of the time. I was seated on the side where her face was turned away.

I love Angela. She even does the queen's wave with great expertise. She wore three outfits--white, black and red to close--and looked fabulous throughout.

Best was "Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta" from La Rondine, a piece she owns. A surprising selection was "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from Verdi's La Forza del Destino. This aria is usually done by dramatic sopranos, but Angela's version was excellent.

I love "Non ti scordar di me" but she was covered by the orchestra the worst in this number. Most pieces ended with loud high notes and arm waves.

I apologize. I have to stop now.